Filling the gaps of knowledge

From protecting lake health to battling homelessness, research projects involving community members and student scientists provide critical support for researchers.

by Lisa Harrison

Community-based research (CBR) is sometimes referred to as citizen science and more formally called community-based participatory research. It’s a rich resource in any application, but it’s particularly helpful in rural areas, which may be overlooked by research programs at higher levels of government.

Locally, community-based research has been operating for more than 30 years. Four key organizations support the three regions in Ontario’s Cottage Country, with some overlap: U-Links Centre for Community Based Research (Haliburton County), Trent Community Research Centre at Trent University in Peterborough, Fleming College’s Office of Applied Research and Innovation, also in Peterborough (City of Kawartha Lakes), and the Muskoka Watershed Council (District Municipality of Muskoka).

A violet sunset over a calm lake with trees on a rocky shoreline.

Promoting CBR is important for several reasons, according to Rebecca Willison, watershed planning technician for the Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC), which focuses on projects that protect the watershed.

“First, by becoming engaged in monitoring and collecting data, community members learn about the environment around them and how their and their neighbours’ actions can impact the environment, both positively and negatively,” says Willison. “It opens their eyes to the world around them and helps them care about what happens to it.

“Second, the data collected can be used by organizations like MWC to report back to the community on the health of the environment. Community-based research can also help fill the gaps in knowledge, particularly when collecting the data could be costly or time consuming if done by a small organization.”

Founded on collaboration

CBR organizational models may differ, but it can only work when organizations and communities collaborate.

U-Links, which has been operating for 32 years, is a regional pioneer in CBR. It operates differently than many CBR organizations in that it develops research projects to meet the needs identified by the community, rather than determining a project and seeking community support for it.

“Recently we were able to confirm through research and some writing by Randy Stoecker from the University of Wisconsin that we are one-of-our-kind with this model in a rural community in North America,” says Daniela Pagliaro, U-Links administrative and logistics coordinator.

Trent and Fleming collaborate with U-Links and with each other to provide students as needed for research programs.

“Typically, students complete their research alongside the host organization and a faculty supervisor during their final year of study,” says Ryan Sisson, team lead, community and workplace partnerships at Trent. “All research is completed for credit, with most students contributing approximately 220 hours towards their research from September to April.”

CBR funding models also vary by organization. For example, U-Links projects generally are supported through a combination of funding from Trent, grants for which U-Links applies and community donations. For such organizations, finding sufficient resources can be a critical research project itself.

Regardless of the organization, ethics protocols regarding privacy, working with vulnerable populations and other considerations must be strictly observed.

Facilitating a good day

Among the most significant examples of local CBR projects is the Homelessness Research Collective created by Trent University.

“The City of Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton County were implementing new housing and social support programs,” says Dr. Kristy Buccieri, associate professor, criminology coordinator and collective co-leader with Dr. Cyndi Gilmer, associate professor and director of social work. “Our team was asked to conduct research and determine what needs existed and which supports would be the most impactful.”

The findings were communicated in several reports including “A Good Day is Waking Up Inside,” which highlights recommendations from people with lived expertise of homelessness.

“The reports have been used to strengthen community supports, such as hiring new housing and intensive support case workers,” says Buccieri. “These programs have had a direct positive impact on community members, who otherwise would not have been as fully supported.”

Other projects conducted by the four local CBR groups include economic assessments, arts community support, historical research and agricultural issues resolution.

Student benefits package

Community-based research also provides substantial benefits to the participating students through a deeper understanding of the course studies and practical experience that can contribute to greater success after graduation.

For example, student researcher Emily Amon, who graduated from Trent with an MA in sustainability studies, had her U-Links-based thesis published in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.

Madeline Porter served in Trent’s Homelessness Research Collective while completing her MA in Canadian and Indigenous studies. She now works as homelessness system coordinator, housing services for the City of Kawartha Lakes.

University of Waterloo graduate Brendan Martin joined an aquatic biomonitoring project while completing his environmental technologist diploma at Fleming. He’s now the environmental program coordinator for U-Links and has been nominated for the University of Waterloo’s Young Alumni Inspiration Award.

While completing her Honours BSc in biomedical science at Trent, student researcher Tonya-Lee Watts received the 3M National Student Fellowship honouring students who demonstrate outstanding leadership in their lives and at their college or university.

Looking to the long game

CBR is gaining traction worldwide and practitioners welcome the chance to spread the word and compound the value of the research by developing sustainable projects.

“As government budgets are continually reduced for environmental programs and monitoring, it becomes even more important for the public to get involved in citizen-science monitoring programs in order to maintain long-term data sets into the future,” says Willison.

“Whenever I travel out in the world and I’m talking to people and I say, ‘Well, I’m involved with a community-based research centre in our community,’ they’re saying, ‘What? You have what? How do we get one of those?’ ” says Jim Blake, co-chair of the U-Links management committee.

“U-Links is one of the sort of cofounders of Community Campus Engage Canada. It’s trying to bring together community organizations and universities and looking at the whole idea of ‘community first’ in terms of their research relationships. So, what we’re doing in Haliburton County, they’re looking at it from a national perspective.”

Blake’s desire to see more sustainable CBR could be genetic. His grandmother was a citizen scientist, recording the temperature at the start of each day and the number of mice she caught at the end.

“It’s 40 years of longitudinal data,” notes Blake. “That whole idea of using people who are really interested in their environment and then recording it is incredibly useful for the bigger picture of science.”